Do you remember Glamour Shots at the mall? Maybe you still have one tucked away somewhere. Big hair, ridiculous makeup, all-too-stylish apparel, and overtly sexy poses. They were all the rage in the ‘90s. I never did them; I just missed that generation. But in Japan, there is a current trend that seems eerily similar: the Geisha Makeover Experience. You dress up in traditional kimono, wear an elaborate wig, and paint your face white. Then you have a photo shoot. For just over $100 you will get the experience of a lifetime and some pretty awesome pictures to boot.
At least, that’s what I thought…
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the experience. It was fascinating to watch my face transform. And I had no idea how complicated the kimono really is. Not to mention hellishly uncomfortable. Layer upon layer upon layer. The summers must have been hell.
But the pictures – the “glamour shots” – they were a different story. Turns out, when you paint your face and neck completely white, you lose your chin line. Not pretty. Also, tiny red lips look weird; pink under-eye concealer isn’t flattering; and red eyeliner makes your gaze look bloodshot. But the worst, by far, was the contrast of my smile against the blue-white skin tone. Ugh. (No wonder Japanese women used to blacken their teeth!)
However, the makeup was the least of my worries. It was the traditional garb that really sealed the deal. I was excited to look, I don’t know, elegant. Sophisticated, even. I thought a gorgeous kimono, cinched around the waist with a contrasting obi would be flattering, pretty.
It wasn’t. I looked awful! There’s no way to sugar coat it.
Turns out the kimono isn’t just a lovely robe with long, flowing sleeves. Oh no. There is so much more. First, the undergarments – think 18th century underwear. Next a skirt (like a beach sarong) wrapped around the waist. Then a tunic-like shirt with a silken collar. Followed by a few long pieces of cloth that are tied tightly, not about the waist, but the hips and the chest. Because every woman loves to have her hips cut in half and her boobs tied down. Then the actual kimono, which is enormous, made entirely from a single bolt of fabric (a tan).
If only it stopped there. But, as you can see from the photos, you then adjust the length of the kimono by tucking the excess fabric under the obi. This excess bulk is referred to as ohashori. I do not like ohashori. I can’t think of a woman on earth who would like ohashori. Next, more cloth sashes to hold that lovely bulk in place. Then a thicker band wrapped around the lower stomach and hips, followed by a hard, cardboard-like panel that sits on the front. Finally the decorative obi itself, with a large “bow” tucked in the back. My own little cape.
I tried to keep up with the layers, inquiring about each one – and there were so many! But between my “Japanese” and their “English,” we didn’t get very far. Suffice to say, I felt like a blimp. If you think corsets are bad, try a kimono. More restrictive and far less flattering. I cannot fathom actually working or living in one of these. Much less flirting, kneeling, or dancing like a true geisha. I couldn’t even walk out the door without help!
With more than 12 separate pieces, it’s no wonder most modern Japanese women cannot put on a kimono unattended. Fortunately, there are actual licensed professional kimono dressers. (No idea what they charge!) It took at least 15 minutes just to dress me. Not to mention the 30 minutes of makeup. And if I possessed long, thick, black hair, my coiffeur would take even longer. (Thankfully I was able to substitute my own locks with a highly dramatic wig. A wig that has taught me never to go black. Ever. It’s not my best look.)
At the end of the experience, I tried to process it all. I was amazed by the beauty of the kimono, the dressing ritual, the drastic and face-altering makeup. (Contouring is child’s play in comparison!) But while it was all very cool, especially to a blonde Irish girl like myself, I couldn’t understand why it was so popular. My photos look awful. In fact, it takes all my courage just to present them on this blog.
It took a few moments of looking through the brochure until I realized… we picked the wrong package! Evidently we had two choices: Maiko (apprentice geisha) or Courtesan (you know what that means!). As I examined the other photos in the studio, I understood. The popular pictures, the sexy shots, were of the Courtesan variety. No white makeup. Instead, girls are presented gorgeously with thick black eyeliner, luscious red lips, and well-placed blush (not to mention concealer!). Fake lashes and what I can only describe as “prom hairdos” finish the look.
They still wear a kimono. But not the traditional 12-layer ordeal. Instead, they are sporting yukata (casual summer kimonos). Brightly colored, they are made of lighter materials and don’t require all the undergarments. Most essentially: no ohashori. This was what I’d envisioned. Gorgeous silk, small waist, fancy makeup and elaborate, but natural, hair. This is not what I got!
But… and I say this reluctantly… I suppose I got the better experience. While I might prefer beautiful photos to splash all over Instagram, I know deep, very deep down that this was a better use of money. I now have a greater appreciation for what the women of Japan went through for centuries. (Though obviously not every woman wore the elaborate formal kimono. These were reserved for the wealthy elite.)
Kimono literally means “thing to wear,” and they are worn by men and women. Men’s fall above the ankle while women’s are longer, leaving an allowance for the dreaded ohashori. Unmarried women wear a furisode with long, floor-length sleeves, while married women boast shorter, more practical ones. They are always draped left over right, except at funerals, when it is reversed. The obi – or sash – is traditionally tied in the back. Only prostitutes tie it in the front. (This seems odd to me, though. Wouldn’t that make her even less physically appealing? Maybe she’s wrapped up like a present…?)
Originally adapted from China during the Heian period (794 – 1192 AD), Kimono are made with exceptional skill from the richest material. Regarded as a fine art, their designs and patterns are both symbolic and seasonal. Cherry blossoms for spring, Japanese maple for fall. And the interplay between the layers is always intentional, combining contrasting colors and textures to create harmony.
In modern Japan they are rarely worn on a daily basis. Western garb was introduced by the government in the late 19th century and mandated soon after in public schools and government offices. You do see an occasional elderly woman who sports a plain, serviceable yukata while buying groceries or taking the train. But generally they are reserved for weddings, tea ceremonies, and formal occasions. The exception: professional sumo wrestlers. Evidently, they are required to wear traditional Japanese garb whenever appearing in public. Huh.
Like Western ball gowns or evening dresses, they are inordinately expensive considering their infrequent use. The outer kimono can easily run upward of $10,000; the entire ensemble, more than $20K. The obi alone can cost thousands. But from what I understand, most kimono are passed down. And as they are generally one-size-fits-all, that seems sensible. Over generations, a family can create a large collection ranging in season and formality. (Though you’d still have to pay for the professional dresser…)
For tourists, the best place to get an “affordable” true kimono is from a second-hand store. But beware: this will still set you back a pretty penny. If you just want to wear a brightly painted garment with a small waist, stop at one of the many shops that line the path to the major shrines and rent one for the afternoon. Only $40, it is probably the cheapest way to experience the kimono. And I promise it will be more flattering.
Would I do it again? Hell no! Am I glad I did it? Definitely.
Kimono are an enormous part of Japan’s artistic culture. They are quintessentially Japanese. And they are glorious… just not on me!